Putuwá: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang

I have written about the story of Patyegarang and William Dawes on this blog before. It’s a beautiful story about language, friendship, trust, heart, and sacrifice; it’s a story about building bridges, whether you realise it or not; how different things might be now had the understanding not been rudely interrupted in 1791. When Bangarra announced their major production for 2014, their twenty-fifth year, was to be based on this story, I added it to my list of must-see productions and eagerly held my breath. And here we are, nine months later; the same amount of time it took those eleven ships to sail from London to Sydney Cove, two-hundred and twenty-seven years ago.
Bangarra’s Patyegarang takes the notebooks William Dawes made of the Sydney language, and turns them into a haunting, elegant and powerfully fluid seventy minutes of dance theatre. If you’re familiar with Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, then you’re already thinking along the right track of this piece. Except there is a difference: where Grenville’s book is about the friendship from Dawes’ point of view, Bangarra’s Patyegarang is about the young woman, her culture, her land, her language, and her relationship with the white man to whom she taught her language. It is Patyegarang’s story; it is her show.

The beauty of Bangarra’s production, of Stephen Page’s choreography, comes from its muscular fluidity, its lithe athletic freedom, its purity and emotional heart, and you leave the Drama Theatre exhilarated, sure that you have just witnessed something rare, something to savour. While other retellings of the story, all based from the same source material of Dawes’ notebooks, emphasise the linguistic nature of Patyegarang and Dawes’ friendship, Page illuminates a physical dimension to their friendship. And while a sexual dimension to their relationship can be inferred from their recorded exchanges (she was probably fifteen or sixteen, he was about twenty-eight) I think it actually does their friendship a disservice to think of it in this light. What Page brings us in his choreography is a spiritual embodiment of culture, of the earth, of the land and of a cultural remembered history. Through his conception of the character of Dawes, there is a longing, a yearning to connect with someone so far away from home, and he finds that person in Patyegarang. Like all relationships, they begin tentatively, fleeting exchanges of touch and presence, until it evolves into something deeper, symbiotic, unified, complementary and metaphysical.
Watching SBS’s landmark documentary series First Australians recently, I came across the smallpox epidemic of 1789, and how Sydney’s indigenous population shrunk irrevocably in a matter of months. What makes this event even more harrowing is the knowledge that we might very easily have never had the opportunity to witness this show, to know this story; that Dawes’ notebooks might very easily have never been written. And there’s a poignancy that creeps into the story once you are aware of this fact, a sadness that makes it even more remarkable, and I think Page understands this in his choreography, just as David Page captures it in his music and soundscapes. Opening with the sound of waves lapping against the shore, of bird calls, and a percussive undertone, David Page’s music becomes the heartbeat of Patyegarang, becomes the soul of the piece and guides the story though its scenes and encounters. At times spiritual, driving, harrowing and sublimely beautiful and intimate, it effortlessly complements the dancers’ movements, transporting them into a dream-like space, where actions speak louder than words and bodies become inscribed with texts and speak volumes.
Many of the scenes in Page’s Patyegarang are representations of scenes or exchanges in Dawes’ notebooks, though there is not a strong narrative throughline to the piece. Scenes blend into one another, and ideas flow from one scene to another, creating a kind of spiritual reflection on the events surrounding the notebooks’ creation. We first see Patyegarang, the young woman, climbing onto a rock, with something in her movement recalling her totem and namesake, the grey kangaroo. The rest of her people gather around her and cross the stage, a land and people awakening, as a stranger appears out of the darkness into the light. A man, Dawes, approaches, settles, and they must try and reach an understanding about each other, how to be and act and live with and around each other. There are representations of frontier conflict, in a gruelling scene with dancers in redcoats and loud gunshots in the soundscape, as well as evocations of the colonist’s assumptions about assimilation – body paint slowly removed from off of a dancer’s body, revealing them as they are, naked; themselves. There is conflict between Dawes and Patyegarang’s people, a push-and-pull scene towards the end, where the two men ‘fight’ over Patyegarang – not for power, but for the privilege of company, of knowing; of sharing her time. This scene ends with Dawes being handed his jacket which he removes, wanting no part of the regime with which he came into contact with this land and these otherwise gentle and peaceable people, and he walks off, into the light, alone; a decision that is not made lightly. Patyegarang takes his jacket, wrings it out, and lies with it over her head on the rock, mourning, as her people gather around her and cleanse the land of the bad connotations it has absorbed. Finally, Patyegarang rises, and dances by herself, in her own space, into the water, resilient; always was, always will be, part of the land.
Jennifer Irwin’s costumes, like Tess Schofield’s for The Secret River last year, are not period replicas, nor do they strive for any kind of historical authenticity. To quote Schofield from The Secret River’s program, “improvised period and tribal looks are assembled loosely from contemporary elements, with the same relaxed energy that rehearsal clothes are cobbled together, and our whole human river world is roughly painted with the wear and tear of life, salt, tar, rich river mud, ochre and clay.” There is an earthy tactile aesthetic in the dancer’s costumes, from woven dresses and hoop-like skirts, to trousers, T-shirts and body paint; they almost feel like sculptural pieces, another part of the landscape from which the story comes. Under Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the wide-shot letterbox format of the Drama Theatre stage is transformed into a kind of sculptural space, where light picks out dancers and movements, creates spaces and pockets of space, where the light becomes part of the telling of the story as much as the dancers, the music and costumes.
At Patyegarang’s heart is the unique and intimate friendship between Patyegarang and Dawes, and the scenes between the two dancers, Jasmine Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield, are full of an aliveness, a looseness and familiarity; they feel like best friends, content in each others’ presence, know instinctively how the other moves and behaves, how they will move, how they can move, and almost predict their next action. Their early scenes are like watching a baby take their first steps, like learning how to walk, while the later scene they share under the southern skies and beyond is like watching lovers. I know I said earlier that I don’t believe there was a sexual element to their friendship, but when you’re making a piece of dance theatre like this, as bodies interact with each other in a space, then bodies do not lie as words can, and it is thrilling and sublimely beautiful.
While the final moments are optimistic, there is the unavoidable weight of what has come to pass in the intervening two-hundred and twenty-three years, of everything that hasn’t happened and is yet to happen. While Patyegarang is a beautiful and meditative work, a forceful, muscular and fluid evocation of a culture very much alive, it is tinged with a sadness, with everything that has been lost. Like Patyegarang who, outside of Dawes’ notebooks, we can find no mention of. Perhaps now, finally, we are ready to start taking those baby steps and start to build that bridge that those two people began on the headland by the ocean two-hundred and twenty-six years ago. As Tess Schofield says, “perhaps we can remind our audience and ourselves what it really means to walk both ways.”

Theatre playlist: 30. Sarah Sees Nullah, David Hirschfelder

Fn. For putuwá, see Notebook B, page 21.

 for RAW

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